Frank Kulbertis shares updated information on wildfires on-air. (Ninna Gaensler-Debs/KQED)
Early Monday morning, KZST owner Gordon Zlot was sure his station was about to burn to the ground. He could see flames just a few feet from the building.
“We’ve been here for almost 35 years,” he said, “and this is my whole life right here. I was fully prepared to walk away and have the building be in ashes.”
Employees evacuated Monday morning but came back to save what they could. They fought encroaching flames with their own fire extinguishers until the fire department finally arrived and put them out.
After the station was safe, there was no question about what they had to do, and the team at KZST really got to work.
Answering the call of duty
Starting around midday on Monday, KZST and their four affiliate stations cut all their normal programming, as well as their ads, and began airing nothing but live coverage of the California wildfires around the clock.
It has been difficult to get reliable information in Santa Rosa, with many people without access to the internet, TV and cellphone service. For some Sonoma County residents, radio is all they have.
One listener calls in and asks, over beeps and clicks, whether people actually have to evacuate in Geyserville. The hosts confirm that, yes, some areas of Geyserville are under evacuation orders, but not all neighborhoods.
When I walk into the studios on Tuesday evening, all the cubicles are dark. The offices are empty -- everyone who’s here is either in the studio recording or darting in and out to bring things to the on-air hosts.
All kinds of employees are pitching in to help out.
On-air time is not part of Frank Kulbertis' job description as the station’s regional sales manager. But he’s been hosting for hours, even giving out his personal cellphone number.
“If you are up on the hills in Bennett Valley, you need to be evacuating,” Kulbertis instructs listeners. “I know you don’t want to lose your home, nobody would want to, but life over property.”
At one point he pauses to thank an engineer who comes to bring in a fan -- it’s hot in the studio and smells smoky. “We’re running off a generator,” Kulbertis tells listeners.
Much of the news has been coming from listeners texting or calling in to share what they’re seeing or experiencing.
Hosts read information on shelter capacity or school closures scribbled down on pieces of paper. The fan keeps blowing the papers off the desk, so they have to snatch them out of the air or scoop them off the ground while relaying information.
It’s personal for KZST
Even for a veteran host like Darren McCormick, this is uncharted territory.
“You know I played music, I have trivia,” he says. “I talked about events and things like that, but I'm not used to sitting in a chair talking for hours and hours about tragedy.”
And the tragedy is also his own. Minutes before he sat down with me, McCormick learned he can’t go home -- his neighborhood is now an evacuation zone. He looks exhausted.
“This is a nightmare,” he says, shaking his head. “I was saying earlier, 'Can I wake up now?' Wake me up.”
The wildfires are still nowhere near fully contained, but station owner Zlot says we need to think ahead to California’s next major disaster -- like an earthquake.
“You know you're not going to have cell, you're not going to have power,” Zlot speculates. “You won't have anything. What do you do? Now you might have the radio. That's where we come in.”
If you tune in, you may hear hosts yelling into the other room, asking someone to move their car because fires are getting closer, or you may hear a marriage and family therapist who talks about the very messy and painful stages of grief.
Wednesday morning KZST’s generator failed, and they scrambled to find yet anotherbackup power source. But they were only off the air for about an hour and a half before they were back.
“We’re going to be with you throughout the evening,” Kulbertis tells listeners, “and as long as we need to be, to keep you informed about the wildfires that are raging throughout Sonoma County.”